Prelude to the Battle
Tennessee Secedes from the Union
On June 8, 1861, Tennessee became the last Southern state to secede from the Union. The decision, however, was far from unanimous. In the eastern part of the state, voters defeated a referendum on secession by some 20,000 votes at the polls. Starting an independent secessionist movement, citizens of East Tennessee petitioned the state legislature to form a new state that would remain in the Union. The governor responded by sending military personnel to Knoxville to enforce the statewide vote for secession. Despite attempts to coerce the population, many residents in East Tennessee and Knoxville remained pro-Union throughout the American Civil War.
Tennessee’s Strategic Importance
President Abraham Lincoln considered the liberation of East Tennessee to be of paramount importance. Beyond the moral and political duty to support the loyal citizens of that part of the Union, East Tennessee was strategically valuable. The main railway connecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and on to the Deep South ran through Knoxville. In addition, East Tennessee farmers produced large amounts of food supplies that could sustain whichever side controlled the area. Despite its strategic importance and being high on the president’s list of priorities, events in other theaters of the war delayed any major Union action in the area until the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, moved to occupy East Tennessee in the summer of 1863.
Federals Occupy Knoxville
By the time Burnside neared Knoxville, events occurring in the Chickamauga Campaign had forced most of the Confederate defenders to move to southern Tennessee, leaving only a token force behind. Burnside’s cavalry reached Knoxville on September 2, almost unopposed. On September 3, citizenry warmly greeted Burnside’s army when marched into Knoxville. With Knoxville occupied, Burnside next captured the Cumberland Gap on September 9. and he turned his attention to clearing the area of any remaining Rebels.
Burnside Moves toward Chattanooga
Shortly after Burnside secured East Tennessee, Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee soundly defeated Major General William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20). Bragg drove Rosecrans’s army out of northern Georgia, back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then besieged the city for two months. As the Union situation at Chattanooga worsened, Washington officials ordered Burnside to leave Knoxville and march south to help lift the siege. Burnside moved toward Chattanooga, but skirmishes with Confederate cavalry slowed his advance from Virginia.
Longstreet Moves toward Knoxville
Meanwhile, in southern Tennessee, Bragg recognized that Burnside’s army posed a threat to his investment of Chattanooga. During the siege, relations between Bragg and fellow Confederate General James Longstreet deteriorated because of Longstreet’s criticism of Bragg’s failure to pursue the defeated Federals more aggressively at Chickamauga. Wanting to rid himself of Longstreet, Bragg received approval from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to detach Longstreet from Bragg’s command and to send Longstreet north to deal with Burnside. Bragg planned on Longstreet being able to drive Burnside away, re-capture Knoxville, and return south before Ulysses S. Grant, who had replaced Rosecrans, could attempt a breakout from Chattanooga.
On November 4, 1863, Longstreet departed from the Chattanooga area on the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad with a force of about 10,000 infantrymen, supported by about 5,000 cavalry troopers. On November 16, his army engaged Burnside’s army at the Battle of Campbell’s Station and forced the Federals to fall back to their fortifications at Knoxville.
Siege of Knoxville
With the Federals safely entrenched in Knoxville, Longstreet besieged the city on November 19. However, Longstreet knew that Bragg could recall him to Chattanooga if Grant threatened Bragg’s investment there. Thus, Longstreet also searched for a weakness in Burnside’s fortifications that he might exploit. On November 29, Longstreet ordered a surprise attack on Fort Sanders, which the Federal defenders easily repulsed.
Before Longstreet could plan another assault, he received news of Bragg’s defeat at the Battle of Chattanooga (November 25, 1863) and of the Confederate retreat into Georgia. Bragg ordered Longstreet to abandon his siege at Knoxville and rejoin the Army of Tennessee in Georgia. Grant, however, had sent a relief force toward Knoxville, commanded by William T. Sherman. When Bragg learned of Sherman’s advance toward Knoxville, he ordered Longstreet to stay put as long as possible to prevent Sherman from returning to Georgia. Longstreet held out until December 4, when he lifted the Siege of Knoxville and marched his army northeast.
Parke Pursues Longstreet
During Longstreet’s siege, Union officials replaced Burnside with Major General John G. Foster. Foster, however, was unable to assume command until December 10, after Longstreet’s army withdrew. Upon arriving in Knoxville, Foster dispatched a force commanded by Major General John G. Parke in pursuit of the Rebels.
Fighting at Bean’s Station
By December 9, Longstreet had passed through Bean’s Station and encamped near Rogersville a few miles to the northeast. On December 13, Longstreet learned that Parke’s cavalry, commanded by Brigadier General J. M. Shackleford, had occupied Bean’s Station had far outdistanced its supporting infantry. Thus, Longstreet halted his retreat and sent a force back to Bean’s Station to destroy the Union cavalry.
Longstreet’s plan was to encircle the unsuspecting Federal cavalry and launch a surprise attack. He ordered his six cavalry brigades to maneuver around Bean’s Station and get behind the enemy to cut off their line of retreat. On December 14, Longstreet moved his main assault force back toward Bean’s Station. Skirmishing began around 2 p.m. and soon developed into a full-scale battle.
Although outnumbered, Shackleford’s troopers withstood several Rebel assaults and flanking maneuvers throughout the afternoon. As more Confederates arrived on the field, they forced the Federals into an orderly retreat. As darkness fell, Longstreet’s force occupied Bean’s Station, but his cavalry had not arrived in time to block the Union retreat. The next day, Longstreet found Shackleford’s men well-entrenched. With the impending arrival of Parke’s infantry, Longstreet called off the assault and resumed his retreat toward Virginia.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Bean’s Station was a tactical victory for the Confederacy that accomplished little other than to add to the bloodshed and loss of life on both sides. Casualties are uncertain, but records suggest that the Union lost 700 soldiers (killed, wounded, captured/missing) and the Confederacy lost 900 soldiers. With Longstreet’s withdrawal into the mountains of eastern Tennessee, the battle of Bean’s Station marked the last engagement of his ill-fated Knoxville Campaign.